PCOO broadens digital access to Freedom of Information

Assistant Secretary and FOI Program Director Kristian R. Ablan Assistant Secretary and FOI Program Director Kristian R. Ablan

The right to information has long been the rallying call of the public for government to promote good governance through transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. It falls under the premise that informed and critical citizens, as well as an open government, are indispensable components of a democratic society. Recognizing the importance of this universal right, the United Nations included the citizens’ access to information in its Sustainable Development Goals under Goal 16, Target 10.

Incidentally, the Philippines is one of 116 countries that adopted a Freedom of Information (FOI) policy. The right to information is explicitly inscribed in Article III, Section 7 of the 1987 Constitution, drawing from its previous ordeals of a government shrouded in deep secrecy, deceit, and suppression of rights. Yet, it took almost 30 years after the passage of the 1987 Constitution before the right to information was duly fulfilled and implemented in the country through President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order (EO) No. 2, series of 2016.

Known as the FOI Program, this landmark policy upholds the constitutional right of the people to information on matters of public concern. EO No. 2, s. 2016 covers all government offices under the Executive Branch, including government-owned and/or -controlled corporations (GOCCs) and state universities and colleges (SUCs). The EO mandates all executive departments, agencies, bureaus, and offices to make public any records, contracts, transactions and information requested by a public individual except for confidential and sensitive information.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) acts as the lead agency in FOI Program implementation. It has been in the forefront of promoting and monitoring FOI compliance of the different government agencies since November 2016. Through its various projects and activities, it raised people’s awareness on FOI, and established mechanisms to access information. It also strengthens the capacities of the different implementers and stakeholders by equipping them with proper knowledge to exercise their right to information. In its primary aim to engage citizens through requests for information, PCOO diversified its strategies to make its services more available and accessible to ordinary citizens. Hence, PCOO capitalized Filipinos’ increasing access to digital gadgets and internet usage through its electronic FOI (eFOI) portal (www.foi.gov.ph). Other than the usual paper-based or manual way of requesting information through the Standard FOI Form, the eFOI portal provides a digital platform where the public can browse, access, and request government records, documents, and information. To date, there are more than 12,800 FOI requests available for viewing in the eFOI portal. The requests come from 4,157 registered eFOI portal users, most of which are members of the academe — teachers and students whose primary purpose of making requests is for their research, school theses, and reports. Through PCOO’s efforts, the eFOI portal currently has 366 government agencies onboard, and the number continuous to grow. The increasing number of agencies that are onboard the eFOI portal is a remarkable indicator of the government’s commitment to facilitate free flow of information in this digital age.

Further, FOI Program is not only for the public’s convenience to access information, it is also a mechanism that drives government to be transparent in its processes and transactions. It creates a mutual cycle that benefits both the “demand” of the public to access and consume information, and the government’s “supply” and disclosure of relevant information, records, and documents. This system of beneficial exchange of knowledge and information exemplifies a democratic collaboration of citizens and its government leading the way to an engaged citizenry.

The small and incremental steps that PCOO undertook for the past two years are an impetus that leads to a greater gain. However, institutionalizing FOI remains to be a challenge for PCOO. It takes a great deal of behavioral change over time, and across different sectors of the society, to imbibe the culture of asking and providing information. Moreover, the current FOI policy only covers the Executive Branch. This policy gap highlights the need for the Congress to pass the Freedom of Information law that will compel all of government to full disclosure, transparency, and accountability in the public service.